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Ten years ago this fall I stood on top of a dam in Northern Maine taking in the stunning scenery surrounding me. I reflected on the paddling I had just done over the past 3 days on the waters that flowed from the base of where I was standing. Up in the North Maine Woods I felt far away from my home in California but distinctly remember how the place grabbed me. I thought “I’ve gotta come back here one day.” It was the first week that I ever sat in a kayak, and while I was not able to kayak again for several years, it planted a seed – a love for the river and these little plastic boats we like to play in on it.

The lower section of the West Branch of the Penobscot River flows out of Chesuncook Lake (via Ripogenus Dam) and meanders some 34 miles to Medway Maine where it joins with the East Branch before making its way to the Gulf of Maine 109 miles downstream. Since that first fall when I visited the Penobscot as a junior in high school during a semester with the Chewonki Foundation, I have had the fortune of returning not only sooner than I thought, but summer after summer to work for Chewonki and pass on kayaking to new kids. I have come to know the place well, spending afternoons basking in the sun on its river banks, hours lapping rapids that I had looked at during that first trip, stunned anyone would ever run them and evenings by the campfire on its shores.

Over the past 5 summers, I have led a variety of trips ranging in length, for boys, girls and co-eds. While I have taught kayaking on other rivers, there is something pretty cool about learning to teach and teaching on the river where you first learned to paddle yourself. It has given me good perspective on what it really is like to learn to paddle on this river.

I can recall the first time I paddled the Horserace Section – three miles of straight of class I-II riffles with plenty of eddies to practice catching, just enough flat water to make recoveries easy and tons of little waves to splash you in the face. Any somewhat dedicated paddler wouldn’t think much of these rapids and could comfortably float most of them without taking a paddle stroke. But on day 2 or 3 of your paddling career the rapid seems big, long, dynamic and plenty exciting! For groups that are with me for only a couple days this is their experience – one ducks-in-a-row run that usually ends too soon. Working with a group for a longer period of time it is wonderful to watch them progress as you push students to catch smaller eddies, attain, ferry and find their own lines to challenge themselves, something I try to do myself.

I remember eating lunch at Abol Beach and begging for our leader to teach me how to roll while everyone else was taking a break. He obliged, standing in the water with me and starting the progression. When I return to that beach I recall that day, recognizing now that it was really not the best place to learn to roll given the current that carries past the beach and that it might have been a little early for me to focus on a roll. But when I have that similarly extra enthusiastic kid pushing to learn something new, I try to remember my instructor’s willingness to get in there with me and go for it, even if it was a little before I was ready. I value enthusiasm and hope that I can foster it similarly.

Big Eddy Rapid is a class III- point and shoot straight down the center woop-di-woop rapid with some good waves and a wonderfully large run out into two big eddies. This rapid was the pinnacle of my first three days of kayaking. We scouted it anxiously from the side where we built up the courage to run it – the biggest rapid any of us had run to date – huge! I won’t ever be sure, but I think it was my run of Big Eddy that sealed the bug for kayaking under my skin. The elation I felt running that rapid would not soon be forgotten. These days when I stand on the rocky shore next to this rapid talking about scouting and asking a new group of kiddos to find their own line, I still remember the nervous excitement I felt the day I was one of them. I hope that the memory of my own learning experiences can help me stay an effective and understanding instructor. The smiling faces of the kids at the bottom of the rapid sure make me want to keep teaching.

Whether or not these kids stick with paddling, I am happy that I get the chance to share these moments on the water with them and hope that they can look back on these experiences and these small watery triumphs with fondness. After all they are not just learning paddle strokes, rolling or surfing, they are gaining confidence in themselves.

What makes my job as an instructor is watching the breakthroughs that build this confidence and the looks on the faces of my students that they are punctuated by. The look of nervous concentration that turns into an expression of victory when they make it through a challenging rapid; the look of “wait! What am I doing upright?!” when a student nails their first roll in a rapid, the squinty shocked face when they first get hit with a big wave and the open mouthed, uncontrollably laughing, goofy face that generally goes with a surf that lasts a little longer than anticipated, but they’re loving it. These are the faces I take away from teaching and the faces I hope to keep making myself for many years.

A few years ago I led a group of high school juniors from Chewonki on their semester wilderness trip to the Penobscot. My co-leaders were two of the instructors that had first brought me up to the “Nob,” but this time I taught alongside them. I had come full circle. I had not only managed to return to Ripogenus Dam and the place that had enchanted me so when I was in high school, but I had made this place my playground.

This past summer I stood on top of that same dam where I stood 10 years ago, watching as one of the dam’s gates was lifted and 8000cfs flooded the dryway below to bring down a brimming Chesunkcook Lake. We were at the Penobscot for several days of staff training before another summer on the water and had taken a break to watch the big release. As I stood on Ripogenus Dam, leaning over the railing shoulder to shoulder with my peers, this time I couldn’t help thinking “Man, I wish paddling the dryway was appropriate training…”